As the summer heat hits full blast, people everywhere are flocking to the water. While the tendency to hit the waves when the going gets hot is not unique to a given time or people, what we wear (or don’t!) certainly is. From full-on dresses to itsy-bitsy bikinis–plus weird contraptions called bathing machines–you’ll love this history of women’s swimwear.
The history of women’s swimwear begins with a simple outfit known as the birthday suit. All jokes aside, up until the 19th century people frequently bathed nude. And while women were known to cover themselves with clothing that resembles our modern day bikini, the outfits weren’t for swimming. In fact, swimsuits were invented in the mid 1800s. Their creation came out of necessity; recent improvements in railroad systems and other transportation methods had finally made swimming and going to the beach a recreational activity.
If you saw a picture of swimsuit-clad women in the second half of the 19th century, you’d have a hard time recognizing their outfits as swimwear. The times called for swimsuits that more closely resembled a belted dress over long bloomers (aka baggy pants). While they weren’t aesthetically appealing, the swimwear fulfilled its primary purpose: to conceal a woman’s body.
Back in those days, women were compelled to conceal their bodies so as to be “modest.” For that reason, the top portion of the swimsuit hung low like a dress to hide the woman’s figure. These suits were made from heavy flannel fabric that was both opaque and sturdy enough to not rise with the water. At some sites, 19th-century women also had the luxury of using a bathing machine. These small, wheeled structures were dragged into shallow waters so a Victorian lady could prance around the ocean in complete privacy.